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Are Employers Responsible for Protecting Employees? What to Do if You Have Been Exposed to Unsafe Working Conditions

Employers have an ethical responsibility to protect employees to the best of their ability and within reason. They also have a legal imperative. The federal agency tasked with overseeing workplace safety is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA works with state agencies to protect workers.

OSHA reports that 5,333 people died on the job in 2019. This is the worst-case scenario, but thousands more suffer injuries daily on the job. Common accidents involve ladders, scaffolds, energy sources, trucks, and machinery. If your employer failed to protect you on the job, you may be able to take legal action.

Examples of Unsafe Working Conditions

Every job comes with potential hazards. Some jobs are more dangerous than others. Employers play a big role in making workplaces safe. When they fail to do their duty, people get hurt or even killed. These are some of the most dangerous jobs based on information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Fishers and hunters
  • Loggers
  • Aircraft pilots and flight engineers
  • Construction helpers
  • Refuse and recyclable material collectors
  • Truck drivers
  • Structural iron and steel workers
  • Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers
  • Grounds maintenance workers

These workers face several unsafe conditions, even when employees use best practices and follow safety standards. The risks vary by industry, and include accidents, falls, and exposure to hazardous substances:

  • Fishers and hunters – These workers have long, difficult hours and risk falling, being hurt by equipment, or developing hypothermia. Older boats also have asbestos in many components.
  • Loggers – Logging industry workers face high risks due to falling trees and limbs and the equipment they use to fell trees.
  • Aircraft pilots and flight engineers – Plane crashes are the biggest risks for these workers, most of which occur in the private aviation industry.
  • Roofers – Roofers face the obvious risk of falling. When working on older buildings, they may also be exposed to asbestos, a substance once used commonly in roofing materials.
  • Construction helpers – All construction workers face risks, including transportation accidents, machinery injuries, and falls. When working in older buildings, they risk exposure to asbestos.
  • Refuse and recyclable material collectors – Waste workers face transportation and machinery accident risks. They can also be exposed to harmful substances in need of disposal, including household chemicals, industrial waste, and old construction materials that contain asbestos or lead.
  • Truck drivers – The main risk of being a truck driver is getting in an accident. Drivers may also perform maintenance on their vehicles, which can expose them to toxic fumes and asbestos fibers in brakes and clutches.
  • Structural iron and steel workers – These intrepid workers operate high up in the air, which puts them at serious risk for fatal falls.
  • Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers – Farm workers face the risk of accidents while working with equipment. Large farm equipment can also contain asbestos, which can lead to exposure during maintenance. Fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide exposure can cause harm too.
  • Grounds maintenance workers – Landscapers spend a lot of time on the road, risking traffic accidents and injuries. They must also handle pesticides and herbicides.

Workers face all kinds of dangers on the job. One of the most insidious because it isn’t always obvious or visible is exposure to hazardous substances. Some of the typical contaminants workers may come into contact with cause serious health problems:

  • Asbestos.Asbestos was used in many industries, and while less common today, it lingers. Construction workers face some of the biggest risks when in older buildings. Damaged asbestos in insulation and other materials can cause asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.
  • Diesel fumes. Farm workers, drivers, grounds workers, and many other people face exposure to exhaust from diesel engines. The particulates and organic compounds can increase cancer risk and cause respiratory illnesses, eye irritation, and headaches and nausea.
  • Asphalt fumes. Construction and transportation workers can be exposed to asphalt fumes. A petroleum product, asphalt can irritate the eyes and throat, cause skin rashes and headaches, and even increase the risk of cancer.
  • Pesticides. Farm and grounds maintenance workers often must mix, handle, and apply or work near pesticides and other chemicals. Depending on the type, exposure can damage the nervous system, irritate eyes, nose, and throat, cause a skin rash, disrupt hormones, or increase the risk of cancer.
  • Lead.Lead is found in pipes, cable covers, solder, fishing weights, and many construction materials. Workers who handle these materials are at risk of inhaling lead dust, which can cause neurological damage, gastrointestinal problems, kidney damage, and anemia.

The Responsibility of Employers to Protect Workers

All employers have an ethical responsibility to compensate employees fairly, have reasonable expectations for their work, not discriminate unfairly, and provide a safe workplace. While the obligation exists, not all employers follow it without a legal component.

The Occupational Safety and Health law holds employers accountable for safety in the workplace. It outlines several responsibilities employers have when it comes to keeping workers safe. These are just a few of the things employers must provide for safety.

  • A workplace free from serious, recognized hazards
  • Compliance with OSHA regulations
  • Safety training in the workers’ languages
  • Safe tools and equipment
  • Signs warning of hazards
  • A poster displaying employee responsibilities and worker rights
  • Hazard communications and response plans
  • Records of workplace injuries and accidents
  • Medical screenings as needed and appropriate

There are, unfortunately, many examples of employers failing to meet the standards set by OSHA. Too many are never discovered until someone gets hurt or killed.

One recent example tragically resulted in the deaths of six workers. A liquid nitrogen leak killed six people at a poultry processing plant in Georgia after a conveyor belt malfunctioned. OSHA cited the employer for failing to provide safe equipment and many other issues.

Also recently cited, a nursing home in Missouri exposed residents and employees to asbestos after a renovation job. OSHA cited the facility for failing to have a plan for the safe, contained removal of the asbestos materials.

What You Can Do in Response

Know your rights and the legal responsibilities of your employer in your specific industry. Armed with this knowledge, you can fight back against an unsafe workplace. OSHA gives workers the right to request an inspection and to report workplace safety hazards and injuries without retribution.

If you already suffered injuries or illness from an accident or exposure on the job, you may be able to take legal action. In some cases, the best thing to do is to file a claim for workers’ compensation. In other instances, you may need to sue an employer or other company over the incident.

A lawyer can help you decide what to do next. Because of workers’ compensation, many people believe a lawsuit is not possible when you get hurt on the job. It depends on the situation. As an example, the courts recently allowed a Pennsylvania asbestos lawsuit to proceed. A retired teacher was diagnosed with and died from mesothelioma after asbestos exposure in her school. The district tried to fight the lawsuit, but the Commonwealth Court agreed she and her family could proceed.

Wrongful treatment by an employer can lead to serious illness, injuries, and in the worst cases, fatalities. Employees have a basic right to safety, and they also have a right to take legal action when the worst happens.

Page Reviewed and Edited by
Dave Halpern, Mesothelioma Attorney

Dave Halpern is a Pennsylvania and New Jersey mesothelioma attorney with over 30 years of experience. He has investigated hundreds of cases and won numerous multimillion dollar settlements and verdicts for asbestos victims. Dave prides himself on working tirelessly to help his clients in their time of need. 

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